A Tale of Two Poker Worlds; Grinders vs. Nosebleed Cash Game Players

Steve Ruddock : September 9th, 2016


A lot is made, and a lot of words are written, about the differences between recreational poker players and professional poker players, and how we make the game more appealing to recreational players vis-à-vis professional players.

But throwing poker players into one of these two categories is far too simplistic for my liking – even though I do it myself all the time for brevity reasons – and doesn’t allow us to truly breakdown what needs to be done to improve the poker ecosystem.

In a perfect world I’d be able to explain the nuanced differences between players without exceeding a 140 character limit, or turning off readers. The fact is, there are numerous types of recreational players, all with different traits and quirks, and all with their own motives for playing poker.

In a previous column I talked about some of the different types of recreational players, which I expanded into three categories (without even getting into the subsets of each category), they were: Explorers, Hobbyists, and  Settlers.

The professional poker ranks are equally diverse. So, in this column I want to take a closer look at the differences in the professional ranks, and how the professional cash game universe can be divided into two very distinct worlds, inhabited by two very different types of people.

In a future column or columns I’ll take a look at tournament players and online poker players, which are also diverse groups.

The card room universe

If you walk into any good-sized card room across the globe and mill around the main floor you’ll bump into plenty of professional poker players.

These players are somewhat hard to recognize as professionals, as they look like most of the other people sitting at the tables, and since they haven’t received TV time they’re a largely anonymous bunch – which is the way most of them like it.

The typical professional poker player in a card room ranges from the people grinding out a living in low stakes games, to the mid- to high-stakes players whose income is comparable to top doctors and lawyers.

These live cash game players come in all shapes and sizes. Some are affable and friendly; others are miserable and intimidating.

Many are north of 30, since it’s hard to call yourself a live professional cash game player without having a few years of good results under your belt. And unlike the younger players that still have their sights set on being a poker end-boss, and have a bit more gamble in them, the established pros are more comparable to Knish than Mike McDermott.

When it comes to the card room regs, their results may vary (some are content to grind $2/$5 NLHE or $20/$40 limit games, while others are consistent winners in higher stakes games), but their survival methods are generally the same.

By and large, they practice good bankroll management. They play x hours a day, x days a week, and look for good games. They’re patient and unflinching whether they’re winning or losing, and not prone to tilting. They’re battle-tested and know all the angles – some even use them on unwitting opponents.

They know all the regulars but they’re not too friendly, preferring to keep most of their peers at arm’s length and their relationship more professional than personal.

The most interesting aspect of these players is that despite their chosen profession, they’re generally risk averse. They tend to be cautious with their money, and not prone to excessive risk-taking, be it zany bets, taking shots at bigger games, or putting a large chunk of their bankroll at risk.

These are the players that are in it for the long haul, have likely learned from previous missteps, and don’t have any delusions of grandeur. Like any profession, they’re there to do a job, and they more or less punch a clock every day.

In the eyes of consistently successful cash game players, tournament poker is a laughable way to make a living, and the famous nosebleed players are either already broke or one stupid move away from ruin – which has some shreds of truth to it.

The Nosebleeds

Speaking of the nosebleeds, or as I like to call it, Bizarro World, this is the second group of professional players I spoke about in the introduction.

I’m quite familiar with the world of professional poker players, whereas my thoughts on nosebleed players are based on views from afar.

The reason I’ve chosen the term Bizarro World to describe this realm of the poker universe is because much like the alternative universe in Superman comics, if you transported the typical person to Bizarro poker world their mouth would be agape at what they saw. Everything is backwards from what it should be.

They would expect to find what I outlined in the card room universe header above, skilled players who treat poker like a business. But to reach the upper echelon of the poker world you have to be wired a bit differently.

It’s a world full of never-ending risk, often leading its denizens to experience multiple bouts of excessive reward and crippling ruin. It’s also governed by its own set of rules and code.

This is a world where hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions of dollars can be won or lost on any given day. A world where millionaires can be made, lose it all, and become millionaires again within the span of a week, only to lose it again and start the process all over.

This is a world where players borrow and lend absurd amounts money from mere acquaintances. This is a world where people will make “friendly” wagers that will devastate the loser.

The younger players who inhabit this world tend to live and travel together for months at a time. They exchange ideas and strategies, and are always looking for an edge. Staking, swaps, and having pieces of other players is common. And every decision is based on expected value. There is little emotional attachment in this universe; empathy is almost a weakness.

It’s also a world where bankroll management goes out the window because the thinking is you’ll always able to find someone to stake you or borrow from – until you can’t of course – because you’re such a good player with a proven track record.

This is a world where Shaun Deeb will loan someone seven figures when he doesn’t know their last name – a topic I spoke at length about in this column.

This is a world where people make dangerous (from a financial and health perspective) six and seven-figure prop bets with their friends. Bets like Ted Forrest’s weight loss bet, or Ashton Griffin’s running bet.

This is a world where players routinely do five-figure money swaps without batting an eyelash (as if it’s normal to carry around $10k or more in cash and loan it out), and only realize they weren’t paid weeks or months later.

Most don’t survive very long in Bizarro World, and some flameout in dramatic fashion, as a perusal of the poker boom era millionaires will demonstrate.

A select few are cut out for this world. They plan accordingly, and tend to be able to avoid the constant bankroll destruction the wild swings bring about when playing for astronomical amounts of money. They also avoid the pitfalls that can destroy people who receive a windfall of money at a young age.

The thing is, if you travel in this poker universe you’re always just one or two steps away from ruin. Read Mike Sexton’s autobiography, or Mike Matusow’s, or the financial issues Erick Lindgren, Eli Elezra, or Ted Forrest have found themselves in. And this doesn’t even touch on the speculation about who’s broke that you’ll come across daily on 2+2.

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